A chance comment from a neighbor at table one night brought into sharp focus in my mind the town of Oban on the West coast of Scotland.
There was no room in the hotel or the hostel. The two girls knew nothing of Scotland in September. They couldn’t know of the house parties, the shooting, the Hunt Balls, the number of lodges that lay vacant all year until September and then came alive. And they had not realized every hotel room and hostel bed would be reserved.
They had known each other since they were 12, coming together from different parts of New England to go to a coeducational boarding school in Vermont. Then they had gone on to the same women’s college and were about to spend the year in Paris as part of the Junior Year Abroad program, the first to stay in families again since WWII. All this lay ahead of them. (The director of that group, Jeanne Saleil, was to be described later in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s book about her experience in Paris at almost the same time.)
They were by now 19, not well traveled. One of them, Joan, had spent the summer touring from England through Belgium and Switzerland to Italy and back to France as a member of the college Chamber Singer group. That group had departed, sailing on the Queen Elizabeth back to the U.S. Lee, the other girl, had just arrived in Europe, and the two had met up as planned, bought bicycles in London, put them on a train for Scotland, de-training in Stirling, and spending 10 days bicycling in the Highlands.
Memories of how they got there and of the trip itself are heightened by photographs, by songs they learned from fellow hikers, and by vivid moments recollected out of the blue. For instance, the hotel keeper in Oban took pity on them and allowed them to sleep in their sleeping bags in what felt like a cleaning closet while the Hunt Ball went on around them. Joan remembers glimpses of people in kilts, women in lovely long dresses with tartan sashes draped from shoulder to hip, as they passed by the crack in the curtains that separated the two girls from the crowd of dancers. (I’m sure this is why Rosamunde Pilcher’s writing is so endlessly evocative. JSB)
At the Highland Games the next day, friendly and curious Highlanders spoke with the girls and told them how to get to Ben Cruachan. The photographs they took of each other at the top of that mountain are proof the girls arrived there, but the memory of the climb has vanished in time. Where they had made a picnic, how long the climb took, remain unknown.
They had spent some time in the household of Richard Wimbush in Edinburgh. They know that because Lee took a picture of Joan playing in the sandbox with two of the littlest children. Later, Joan and her husband visited Richard Wimbush and his wife, by then retired from being Bishop of Argyll and the Isles. Years of sending Christmas cards back and forth had maintained that link. But lost is how they came to be there in the Wimbush household in the first place, nurtured, rested, lent clothing for their bike trip.
The bicycles they had acquired had only three gears and in the Highlands the hills ore frequent, long and steep. So there were hours spent pushing bikes up hills. On one of those long series of hills, the girls were joined by a schoolmaster on holiday. He happened to know Scottish songs and was willing to sing them. Joan still has in her song collection the original songs she wrote out in the evening after they’d arrived at a hostel: Uist Tramping Song, Mhairi’s Wedding, Westering Home. In the upper right hand corner: “Learned from Christopher, Pass of Glencoe, September 13, 1952.” The staves are hand-drawn since there was no music paper handy, and the paper is yellowed, but the notes and the words are still clearly legible.
So, sitting at table aboard Amsterdam in 2015, we talk with our neighbors and hear other conversations around us. We realize how most of us have stories we want to tell, how people have different ways of working the conversation around to where they’ll be able to fit their story in, feel justified in imposing it on others. It’s seldom as interesting or as beguiling to the group, many of whom don’t really listen, as it is to the tale-teller, but that’s alright. Perhaps some image, retained, will prompt one person to bring another good story into being.
You begin to want to know more about some of the people you meet, having heard just a snippet, like. “…he decided he wanted to become a full-time glass-blower,” or, “I became a ghost-writer for..” There’s time.